Posts Tagged ‘Abiding’

Connected 4-29-18

In this sermon, based on John 15:1-8, I explore Jesus’ statement “I am the vine, you are the branches.” This is a fitting text as today is also Confirmation Sunday, and I address 4 young people who are affirming the faith of their baptism.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/connected-4-29-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

When I was growing up on the farm, my older brother and I made forts everywhere. In a tree…in and around the farm equipment that was stored in the shed or the grove…you name it…we probably made a fort there.

I remember one time, when we decided that we were going to make a fort across the road, in the ditch right next to our mailbox. Now, typical of most ditches out in the country, the grass was uncut, so it grew up tall, and the ditch itself was pretty steep in this spot…so our fort pretty much consisted of a patch of grass getting matted down…and it served pretty much no other purpose than a spot for us to duck down and hide each time a vehicle drove past on the gravel road.

But at one point, we started thinking, always dangerous for young boys…but we wanted to be able to see across the road, and the tall grass was causing a problem…so we got some trimmers and cut down the tall grass, leaving a gap a couple of feet wide that we could look through…but now this created a new problem, because when a car came by, we no longer had the tall grass to hide behind…so we got creative and propped up the tall grass stems that we had cut off across the opening, using it as camouflage.

I know…we created a hole and then promptly covered it back up again…we were young and foolish, just go with it…we did, but the next day, we discovered the problem with our great plan as we came back out to our fort, only to discover that the camouflage was now dried up and brown…sticking out like a sore thumb alongside the rest of the tall bright green grass in the ditch.

I can remember a sense of confusion…I was flabbergasted by the fact that the bright grass that we had propped up had promptly dried up and died…and it would only come about as I got older that I began to understand the importance of a plant being connected to its roots.

And as many of you are familiar, eventually my fascination with plants led me to my college degree of horticulture…a study that greatly increased my knowledge and understanding of many different types of plants…including grapevines. (pause)

I am the vine, you are the branches…Sound familiar? Our lesson today is found in the midst of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper…and event we’ve heard about in recent memory…as Jesus takes on the role of servant, bending down and washing the feet of the disciples…announcing to them that they are clean…all before sitting back down and launching into this long teaching…this final time of encouragement before they’ll head out to the garden where he’ll be betrayed and arrested.

And in the middle of all this Jesus tosses out this metaphor about grape vines and branches and pruning and bearing fruit…not to mention branches getting cut off and burned up…and all the while, all the way through this we hear…repeatedly…abide…a word that we understand…to remain…to be connected.

Now, Jesus probably used this image of a grapevine because of the disciple’s familiarity. Trust me…you can’t throw a rock in the Holy Land without hitting a vineyard…grapevines are EVERYWHERE…and they’d be quite familiar with how grapes are grown…how the plants are tended…and how much work goes into it.

But I can’t help but think that this image, is perhaps a little foreign to us…but you’re in luck today…because I’ve got a degree in Horticulture…and I actually studied the process of grape growing. Now the vine itself, or what I would call the stem…it’s a perennial, meaning it stays alive and continues growing year after year, like a bush or a tree. And they’re planted along a trellis system…essentially a framework that is supporting tight wires that run down past a row of plants. And the framework is set at two levels, with a wire on the top and another one down below it.

And those wires provide support for the branches to grow…which they do, stretching out along those wires. But the branches are pretty wiley…and left unchecked, they grow like crazy…and so it takes a remarkable amount of work to maintain them…and it takes a long time too…because the branches don’t actually produce grapes until the 2nd year…and so the grower or the farmer, whatever you want to call them, they work to keep only the strongest branch growing out along one of the two wires during the first year, constantly cutting back the extra growth in order to keep the main branch strong as it stretches out from the main vine.

Then in the second year, when the clusters of fruit start forming, the grower is still hard at work, choosing the strongest bunches and removing the rest, in order that the grapes that do mature are as healthy as possible.

And then, once that second growing season is done, the entire branch is cut off from the vine, pulled away from the wire, and dumped in with all the rest of the material that had been pruned off through the year…it all dries up and is burned, just like we hear from Jesus today…and then the next year, the process starts all over again with new growth…with a new branch growing in the place of the old one…and the cycle repeats time after time…and the grower’s work is never done. (pause)

Now if that’s still confusing, let me tweak it just a little bit…Jesus says I am the cornstalk…you are the ear. Those that abide in me produce many kernels, but apart from me they produce nothing. Any ear that does not produce kernels is stripped off, baled up and thrown in the barn for bedding. (pause) That a little more clear?

So what do we make of all this? What do we make of stories about cut grass…and growing grapes or corn? Why does Jesus feel the need to share with his disciples the importance of remaining connected?

Well, why do plants need to stay connected? Because they need to be rooted. The roots give stability, but more importantly they provide nutrients and water from the soil…the stem…the roots…the vine…this is the source of life for the branches…and without this connection…without remaining attached to the source…the branches are dead…unable to sustain themselves…much less to produce anything. (pause)

Now isn’t it interesting that the same one who says “I am the vine” also said “I am the way, the truth…and the life.”(pause) Jesus Christ…God in human form…the word made flesh…the light shining in the darkness…he is the source of all life…and all life flows through him.

Now maybe this sorta seems like a no brainer for us to hear while we sit here in worship…but keep in mind the setting when this happened…the Last Supper…Jesus is just about to leave his disciples…he’s just about to cross that barrier into whatever it is that comes next through the resurrection…whatever it is that lies on the other side of death…and they’re going to be alone…the source of life…the vine, is about to be cut off from them.

And I can only imagine, in the midst of his perfect sacrificial love for these individuals…this has got to be hard for him…to being saying goodbye…because anyone who’s been through one knows…goodbye is hard when you love the person on the other side of it…knowing that the relationship that you hold is about to be different…cut off in some way.

Anyone who’s lost a parent or a sibling to death knows this…a child or a caretaker watching their parent lose ground to dementia knows this…parents dropping your oldest off at college a couple states away knows this…there are all kinds of examples of loving relationships that are somehow cut off…and Jesus was in the same boat.

And yet, out of his perfect love for his followers…and not just the disciples but for all of us…he has promised that he will not leave us alone…and if you remember, when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples just a couple of days after this…he breathes the Holy Spirit into them…and through the power of the Spirit…the literal Spirit of God which dwells in them, they are still connected to one another…but more importantly they are connected to God, who is the source of all life.

Now this is important for us to remember, because in the waters of our baptism, we receive the gift of that same spirit…and so we too are connected into the one body of Christ…we are the church…His body here on Earth…gathered and empowered by the Spirit…connected to the vine. (pause)

Now while this is an important reminder for each of us to hear…I’m going to turn my attention to these 4 young people sitting in the front row today.  Today is a big day for you…for in just a moment, you’ll stand before this congregation and affirm the faith in which you were each baptized…today you are claiming the promises made on your behalf for yourselves…and one of those promises seems pretty fitting…to live among God’s faithful people.

In the waters of your baptism, you have been grafted into the one body of Christ…he is the vine and you are the branches…he is the source of life…and your life is evidence of it…and as your connection to the vine continues through your lifetime, may you continue to bear fruit.

Now what does that look like? And Jesus has an answer for us…to love one another. As I have you loved you, you are to love one another…this is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And as we do this, our love for one another reflects our love for the one who first loved us…the one who desires that we remain connected…the one who calls us to abide in Him.

Many of you know that in our last class time, I have the confirmands write a statement of belief…of where they are in their own walk of faith…and I’m always amazed with what I find. This year…there was a theme among the 4 statements…that God is always there…that somehow God is always present…and as I look at the 4 of you today, it is my hope that you will continue to feel this connection to the one who made you in the first place…that you would abide in His word…that you would remain connected with the body of Christ here on Earth…so that you may draw strength and life together with them…as collectively we all rely on the one who is the way the truth and the life.
May we all abide in the one who is the TRUE vine, until we each arrive at that moment when our time in this life is done…and we are pruned back to allow the cycle of life to begin again in our place. And as we consider that unknown reality that lies on the other side, may we remember the truth of the resurrection, and that we have a God who steps into every situation of death in order to bring new life out of it…and that the promises that the 4 of you claim today assure you that this new life in the resurrection, whatever it will look like…is for you. May you stay connected to that promise. Amen.

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Different is Shocking 10-29-17

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In this Reformation Sunday sermon, I explore John 8:31-36 as Jesus reminds us that the boxes that we create for ourselves are insufficient for salvation.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/different-is-shocking-10-29-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Patterns are a wonderful thing…and they bring a sense of familiarity and often, predictability along with them. An example is the tendency for certain people to show up here in the church at predictable times. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but one of the things that I’ve come to recognize is that on Thursday afternoons…usually right about the same time that I’m getting ready to head out and get my kids at school, our very own Julie Larson is going to show up for some light altar guild duties…namely…she’s here to tend to the altar candles. Sometimes we overlap, sometimes I’m already out the door…but it happens often enough that I hear the front door open as I’m sitting in my office and I know who it is…and that about 10 seconds after I hear the front door, Julie will poke her head around and say hi as she’s walking into the sanctuary.

This, of course, was the case this past Thursday. Julie walked in as I was wrapping up…and she was still in the process of candles when I left…and so…when I walked into the office on Friday morning…and did my customary glance through the Sanctuary windows…I did a double take…I was shocked to see the change from the green paraments over the red for today.

Now any time the paraments change it catches my attention…but this time its probably safe to say that it shocked me a little more than normal…because they haven’t changed in a really long time. We’ve been in the season on Pentecost…which features the color green…and is also the longest season of the church year…and so there’s been no change in color since the beginning of June…almost half a year has gone by…no wonder I did a double take when things looked differently in here…I said it a minute ago, and I think it’s a good way to describe my reaction to the change…shocking.

Now…today is of course…Reformation Sunday, that’s why everything is red…and its big one isn’t it. This year is 500 years…we celebrate today on the last Sunday of October as we always do…and the actually anniversary is in just a couple days…we’ve been talking about it all year…but really, its safe to say that our tradition gives the Reformation a lot of emphasis…we even named ourselves after the guy who started it with a hammer and nail and 95 ideas for reforming the church.

Now that event in itself, was shocking enough…and the ripples have spread across the world over the course of the past 5 centuries…now for us its old hat…old news…familiar…but just think about how shocking it must have been for those who were alive at that time…that this upstart professor from backwater Germany was pushing back against Rome and the pope…that he dared challenge the authority…that he challenged the way things have ALWAYS been done.

Interestingly enough…Luther’s experience…and perhaps, the basis for his important work…well it stemmed from a shocking experience as well…and no I don’t mean the fact that he was almost struck by lightning in his younger years, though that would certainly be shocking…pardon the pun…but rather…in his study of the scriptures…Luther’s mind was blown…his world was rocked…when he stumbled across the passage from Romans that we shared a moment ago…and the verse “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”  His view of a judgmental God that was waiting to strike us all down for our sins was blown out of the water as he recognized the free gift of God’s grace through Christ…shocking for him to say the least…and something that I think served as his metaphorical, or perhaps, spiritual 2×4 upside the head.

Change is shocking isn’t it? A change in decorations or color like here in the sanctuary. A change in tradition like Luther instigated through the Reformation…and also, the apparent shock that comes around when Jesus challenges the thought process of his audience in today’s gospel. (pause)

Now this brief reading out of John 8 is featured every year on Reformation Sunday…as Jesus reminds us about the importance of continuing in his word…or sometimes we hear remaining…or abiding…a common theme in John’s gospel…one that we hear many different times and in different settings.

And interestingly enough…the setting of this exchange between Jesus and some of the Jewish elite is a perfect example…but we’ve got to back up to the beginning of chapter 7 for things to start making sense…and as we look back, we learn that Jesus is in Jerusalem in order to celebrate one of the Jewish festivals…something that they did multiple times a year in their tradition…and this particular time, its for the festival of booths.

The whole setting of this festival is interesting…it lasts 8 days…with a Sabbath day at the beginning as everyone collectively rests…and then there’s another big Sabbath day at the end…and throughout the course of the entire festival…everyone is living in a booth…or a little tent that they’ve constructed in and around the city. The purpose of this festival was two-fold…first to celebrate the harvest in the fall…not unlike our Harvest Festival in November…but then as with all of the Jewish festivals…there was a sense of remembering the past…and in this case, God had instructed the Jewish culture to have this celebration every year to remember the 40 years of wandering as their ancestors lived out these years living in their tents…and not only that…but to remember that during that entire time of wandering…God dwelled among them…God, abided in their midst.

This is the festival that has JUST happened prior to today’s reading. One night has passed and Jesus is still in the city…hanging out in the temple courts…teaching and preaching as he often does. And because of his words…because of the truth that he’s been laying out…we hear that many of the Jews in his audience have come to believe in him…and with that, we hear his instruction of abiding in his words…and how this truth will set them free.

Cue the shocked look on the faces of these brand new believers…Wait a sec Jesus…we WILL be free? We’re descendants of Abraham…we’ve never been servants to anyone…what do you mean we will be free? (pause)
Now I can’t help but chuckle at this, because apparently these individuals…who are all members of a culture that places ultimate value on their history and their cultural identity which is tied intimately into past events…they seem to have forgotten that the vast majority of their history found them conquered and controlled by one ultimate political power of the day…the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians and Greeks and Romans.

These people seem to forget all of that history because they are completely stuck in the connection that they hold as descendants of Abraham…and the promise of God’s covenant made so many years before. For them…this is the ultimate distinction…and the thing that they place all of their stock in…as if to say that there’s a box…and if you fall in that box you’re good to go…but if not then you’ll somehow be found lacking. (pause)
I can’t help but find this almost laughable…they’ve just been celebrating God abiding among his people in a spiritual sense…but yet they fail to fully recognize that God has chosen to abide among his people in the physical sense…and even more specifically, that this God in human form…this Word of God made flesh was standing right in front of them talking to them.

Because to fully recognize this…and to fully accept his word and his teaching is to say that the box they had created…the connection to Abraham…their culture…to recognize that this distinction isn’t good enough…that’s downright shocking…it seems to be a tripping point for them that they just can’t get past.

And as I consider this, I can only think that its serves as an example for us as well…that somehow, someway every single one of us will come face to face with a tripping point…with a stumbling block, at some point in our lives…even in the midst of our lives of faith…perhaps even because of it.

Jesus says if you abide in my word you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.  It seems that on that day, for these particular people…the truth that was revealed was that their cultural identity earned them zero points as far as justification goes. Their Jewish distinction got them nowhere…and it blew their minds to the point of being unable to continue following Jesus…which we hear if we continue on through the narrative.

And I find myself asking the same question…when we come face to face with the ultimate truth of God made flesh in Jesus Christ…what misconceptions…what falsehoods that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking give us the edge, will be brought to light for us to see?

Will it be the distinction of our American freedom?  Will it be our upper European Lutheran heritage that we celebrate today on Reformation Sunday…that idea that we’ve got all this theology and tradition figured out and everyone else has it wrong? Will it be our insistance that we don’t actually need God and that we alone are in control?

What is it that is revealed with THE LIGHT shines in our darkness? (pause) I can only think that when we face whatever truth shocks our fragile illusions, we will be left as bare as those individuals who couldn’t get past their cultural identity.  And when we come face to face with a truth that shocks us beyond measure…our only hope is to cling to the words of Christ…to remain there…to abide there in the midst of the promises that he has made…and here’s the thing…he promises us that if the Son makes you free…you are free indeed…and that because of what God has done through the death and resurrection of Christ…because of the proclamation that He has claimed you as his beloved child…the promise is yours that you will abide in his house forever.  (pause)
Here in the Lutheran church…we’ve spent a lot of time looking backwards at the last 500 years…clinging to our culture and tradition…and this is not a bad thing…but we must learn the same lesson that Jesus revealed to the Jews who were stuck in the same state…that now things have changed, and let us seek out how to live into the unknown future as we cling to the hope of God’s promises for each of us…let us remember the importance of what God has said about us…as we move into the next 500. And not just that but as we move past the last 2000 years, and not only that but as we move past all the years that have come and gone since time began and remember that God’s promise is to love us and claim us today and tomorrow and forever. And that this is true for us despite the brokenness that we all feel, shocking though it might be…let us abide in that. Amen

So Simple and Yet Not 5-10-15

In this sermon based on John 15:9-17 I explore Jesus commandment to love one another and that this is how we abide in the love of God.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/so-simply-and-yet-not-5-10-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
We all have things in life that we are good at…things that take little to no effort to achieve…things where we excel…and for me, all the way through school…math was one of those things for me. I had a knack for it…I could pick up a lesson easily…and complete the daily assignment while others in the class were still listening to the teacher explaining the process for solving whatever type of problem it was that we were working on.
And one thing that I always enjoyed was how the process of learning math was cumulative…one thing pretty much always relied on the previous lessons that we had learned…going all the way back to the simple equation that pretty much any kindergarten student can solve…that 1 + 1 = 2. This notion that if you have 1 thing…and you put it together with another thing…then you have 2 things…Simple right?
And yet as the years went by and the lessons continued…things got more complicated…additional and subtraction of single digits leads to multiplication…and then long division…and then onto to things like fractions…and least common denominators…and conversions of measurements…and we keep going into algebraic expressions…solving for the unknown…and then onto geometry…and writing out complex proofs using concepts like the prothagorian theorm…and while that was about the extent of where my mathematical education ended…I know that it goes far beyond my understanding to things like quantum mechanics…used to calculate the behavior of things as big as the universe and as tiny as sub-atomic particles.
And I’ve been thinking about this type of thing lately…this notion that in mathematics, everything continues to build on the lessons that have come before…because there are many days when I sit at the table with my son, helping him work through his math homework…and its been a good reminder for me to see how one lesson builds on the previous lesson…to remember why its so important to learn these various ideas and notions and processes…because understanding the next one is going to depend on you first understanding this one…and all of it…every single bit of it all the way up to that super complex stuff that we catch glimpses within the conversations on Big Bang Theory…trickles all the way back to that simple expression that I mentioned earlier…that if you have one thing…and you put it together with another thing…you have two things… 1+1=2.
Simple right…absolutely…until I drop the bomb that even between these two incredible simple numbers…1 and 2, there is an infinite amount of values…and infinite amount of numbers that lie between 1 and 2. (pause) So simple…and yet…not (pause) Mind blown? Yah…mine too. (pause)
Now I bring all this up for two reasons…First off…this idea that in math, one thing builds on the thing before…and even though they might seem very similar, you have to go through one before you can get to the other…and this is where I’m going to connect into the gospel lesson for today…John 15:9-17…which if you were here last week…probably sounds extremely familiar…and it should…because last week’s gospel was John 15:1-8…and pretty much everything about these two different lessons is pretty similar….same setting…same person talking…same audience…(pause) same subject matter.
Jesus talking to the disciples at the last supper…just before his arrest and death…talking about the notion of abiding. (pause) And so if you were sitting there a moment ago as I read the gospel thinking man this sounds familiar…it should…because there was no break in the action…Jesus was sitting there at supper with the disciples talking…and he probably didn’t even pause for a breathe between verse 8 and verse 9, even though for us today, a week has gone by between hearing “my father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” and “as the father has loved me, so I loved you.”
But here’s the big connection…last week we heard about abiding…about being in relationship…about remaining with God…being connected to God just as the branches of a grape are connected to the vine and to the roots…last week we talked a lot about that…about just what it means to be connected…to remain…why its important…and how we do it. (pause)
And now this week, Jesus moves forward…building on what we heard before and adding to it just a little bit more…for Jesus tells us to abide…in his love…the love that originated from the Father…that moves through the relationship between the father and the son…and likewise from the son to each one of us…abide in his love. (pause)
At first glance…it sounds pretty simple right? So simple that someone much smarter than me wrote a song that pretty much every preschool student in Sunday School can likely sing for you. (sing) Jesus loves me this I know…for the Bible tells me so…
And so we rest in the love of Jesus…the love of God that offered freely to each and one of us…easy right? Its so simple…except…not. (pause)
And here’s the second reason that I started off today by talking about math…because abiding in the love of God is both super easy…and super complicated all at the same time…just like math. (pause)
Because just what it mean? This statement…this order…this commandment of Jesus to abide in the love of God? What does it really mean? To be loved by the creator of the universe…to be the object of love and affection…to be the object of delight in the eyes of the one that made us? And how do we LIVE in that love? Is it simple enough to profess it…that yes, I am a beloved child of God?
Or does it go beyond that? To the point that we have to understand it…that we have to know where it comes from…or why? Or How? Is that a requirement…a prerequisite to abiding in the love of God expressed through Jesus Christ? (pause)
Or on the flip side…is it really as easy as it sounds? Yes Jesus loves me. (pause) It can’t be that simple can it? It has to be way more complicated than that right? (pause) I’ve posed that question before…and actually many times downstairs during education time as we’ve explored the scriptures together…can it really be that simple…can it really boil all the way down to that simple notion that God loves me? (pause)
Because if that’s really the case…then why the heck is this book (hold up the Bible) so darn thick? (pause) Why are there so many stories…and rules…and prophecies…why are there so many examples of God’s judgement…and of people going to war…of oppression and pain and suffering all within this one big thing often times called “The Good Book.” How can that be? (pause) And can we really boil it all down to the simple notion of God loves me? (pause)
And here’s the kicker…here’s how I answer that question whenever I encounter it…either from someone else…or when it pops up within my own head…yes and no. (pause) And yes you heard correctly…can we boil down all of scripture and faith and the church and the questions and answers and theology and dogma and liturgy and sacraments and everything in between to God loves me…yes…and…no.
Because faith is both incredibly easy….while simultaneously being the most mind blowingly complicated thing that I have ever encountered. (pause) But I think Jesus knew that…when he was addressing the disciples…because as he starts talking about abiding in the love of God, he gives us something that actually seems to serve as a pretty straightforward command…instructions that aren’t really that difficult to understand…and in true Jesus fashion…he repeats himself a couple times. Keep my commandments…and you will abide in my love…and this is the commandment…love each other. Period. (pause)
Simple right…and yet…not. (pause) Simple because at first glance love seems easy…and when we are in a situation where there is mutual love…well then it is simple…because its easy to return love for love…but Jesus talks about more than that…and Jesus tells us that we are to love everyone…even those that hate us…and the amazing thing about it is that we see Jesus boil down all of that stuff…theology and doctrine and rules and regulations in one simple statement…Lord, what is the most important commandment…Love God…and then love your neighbor as yourself…period. (pause)
Its not conditional…its not contingent…Jesus simply instructs us to love each other…that’s how we abide…and that is how the world will see that we are something different…that we are something new…that the love of God expressed in Christ Jesus within our lives as believers has made us into something other than what we were before…that we love where the world hates and schemes and plots…that the light of Christ does shine in our lives…in and through the darkness that we all experience and at times…embody.
And in the midst of all this…that our joy…that joy we find in knowing that there is more than what we can see now…that there is hope for the life to come…that we are not alone in the midst of the pain and sorrow that we experience in this life…that this joy is just another sign that we are abiding in the love of God…and finally this joy in knowing that all of this…is not up to us in the first place.
Jesus tells us that we do NOT choose him…but he has chosen us…he has loved US first…and asks only that we mirror that love outwards…that we reflect the love of God for us…so that this world of darkness may see His light…may witness His love…and one glorious day ALL the world may come to know that this love we reflect…this love we abide in…this love of God that we claim…is intended for all the world…each and every one individual…because we are each fearfully and wonderfully made by the one that delights in us…
That’s faith…that’s abiding…both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult all at the same time…but praise be to God that we don’t have to understand it to make it true…we just have to live in it…regardless of if we think its simple…or not…Amen.

Just Abide Already 5-3-15

This morning’s sermon comes from John 15:1-8, which is the parable of the vine and branches. This sermon happens in the context of Confirmation Sunday.

You can listen to the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/just-abide-already-5-3-15

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
My first foray into living on my own was May 1998. I was 19 years old, and I departed my parents’ house for the first time to live on my own…and let me tell you…I was really venturing out…to Bible Camp…10 minutes from home…and it was only for a few months (pause) Impressive right?
Now my second time moving out was a little more extensive. It was a little over a year later…August of 1999…I had graduated from community college, and I was heading off to Ames to finish up my Bachelor’s degree at the one and only Iowa State University. For the first time, I would out of my regular stomping grounds…3 hours away…on my own.
My plan as of the night before moving to Ames…was to load up my car, and my brother was going to load up the rest of my stuff in his truck…and he would then follow me down to Ames and help me move in…but keep in mind I was moving into a dorm room…so I didn’t need everything under the sun…And even though the piles and boxes looked pretty extensive sitting on my bedroom floor…when I got started packing the car…somehow it all fit…and I called up my brother to let him know “Hey…don’t need you this time…I got it all in the car.” His reply “Alrighty…guess you don’t need me…good luck bro.” And he hung up.
And I…got in my car…and started that three hour drive. Now here’s the thing. I knew where I was going…I knew where my dorm was, even where my room was…but I think I was counting on my big brother for something other than just help moving…I think I was counting on him to be that last cord of connection to home…and him being there as I moved into the dorm and got settled…but instead…I was on my own.
And the longer I drove…the closer I got to Ames…the more nervous I got…and as the minutes clicked by I got worse…and worse…and worse…thinking that I was in over my head…and that my safety net was too far away…and that I had no idea what I was really in for…and then after awhile I saw a road sign. Ames…26 miles…and the nerves went up to here (level at chest)…and then a couple minutes later…Ames…10 miles…and the nerves were here (level at eyes)…and then I saw Ames Exit (level above head)…and a couple minutes later I parked my car outside of Helser Hall…and walked up 4 flights of stairs…around a corner…and down my hallway…and the nerves…well by that point they were through the roof…and I was scared to death… (pause)
And now I’m gonna switch gears…over into the gospel…and perhaps you’re wondering just what the heck my first move to Ames has to do with Jesus being the vine…and that is a great question…the connection here today isn’t so much this brief passage about vines and branches…but instead it’s the setting. You see this passage takes place in the midst of Jesus’ farewell address to the disciples at the last supper…a long moment of teaching…one last time before they head out to the Garden where Jesus will be arrested…and then he’ll be crucified…and he’ll be dead…and so in order to take full advantage of the tiny amount of time that they have left together Jesus lays out his final teaching for these men that he loves so much.
And throughout the course of this entire section of scripture…Jesus continues to tell them things like “I am only with you a little while longer” or “Now you see me, but soon you will not see me any longer” and “Soon you will be scattered…each to your own home.” (pause)
Think about how that must have come across to the disciples…they’ve been together 3 years…following Jesus around…they’ve been in community…and yes, they’ve seen some amazing things…had some amazing experiences…but throughout this entire time Jesus has been with them…and now he’s saying that’s coming a close? (pause) How can that be? (pause)
Because remember…they don’t know what’s coming…We say Last Supper…and we know what that means…that 24 hours later Jesus is dead…and then a couple days after that he’s alive again…but just like me driving closer and closer to Ames and finally walking into that dorm for the first time…the disciples have NO IDEA what’s coming next…and to hear that Jesus is going to be gone…their teacher…their master…the one who was always there to help make sense of things…is no longer going to be there to bail them out…to act as their safety net…they are gonna be on their own. (pause)
Now I think that the common tendency for us today is to think that the disciples had it all together by this time…or if not…then when Jesus is resurrected and appears to them that explains everything and they’ve got everything under control. Isn’t that true? Don’t we tend to think that…and maybe not just about the disciples but about all those Biblical Bigwig names that we hear…Moses…and David…Solomon…Elijah…and Peter and Paul…And James and John….they were all Biblical super heroes right? (pause) Or were they? (pause)
This past year in our confirmation class…we explored the Biblical narrative as deeply as we could in the time allowed…we covered a lot of stories involving a lot of individuals…many of whom I just named…and as we continued through the year…lesson after lesson…story after story…character after character…there was a theme there…one that the students and adults came to expect…and that theme is this…that God always seems to use the least likely person…the person who doesn’t have everything figured out…the person who has issues…and questions…and concerns…and problems.
And as we talked about that theme, over and over again…we also talked about how that applies to our lives…that we are called into a life of following Christ, just as those 12 disciples did…and not only are we called into it…but we share the struggle of the unknown…the struggle of not have all the answers…the struggle of having questions…make no mistake…we are more closely connected to the disciples sitting there at the table listening to Jesus than we might realize. (pause)
Now speaking of confirmation…today is of course a very special day for these 8 young people sitting in the front pews today…a day when they will stand up in the front of this sanctuary…and together they will affirm the promises made for them by their parents in the waters of their baptism…they will stand before you as a congregation…and they will stand before God while they do this. (pause)
One of the last things that they did in preparation for this day was to write a statement of belief…a statement that takes an honest look at where they are in their lives of faith today…after 2 years of confirmation instruction…and 14 or so years of growing up in the church.
My one bit of instruction for the students before leaving them to write their statements was “do not try to impress me. I’m not interested in fluff that you think I want to hear. I’m interested in hearing an honest statement of what you think about all this stuff.” And I was fascinated to read what they had to say.
There was a theme of belief that God is real…and is present. There was another theme that we live this life…and then there is something more to come…but we don’t know what it will be like…there was a random theme that they like turtles…inside joke…and finally there was a common theme of questions that the kids still have…ambiguity about all this stuff…how it works, or why…acknowledging the sense of mystery that surrounds our lives of faith.
Now all 8 statements were very good…and very honest…and there was one that seemed to encompass this sense of the unknown…and I’d like to share just a portion of it. “I wonder why this dude would send his only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins…it just boggles my mind. The way that God chose that people that you wouldn’t think that he would choose.”
Truly this stuff is a mystery to understand…but isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to understand it…yet God chooses us anyway…Jesus himself says this to the disciples during this time…You did not choose me…but I chose you…and just as He chose those men to be in relationship…likewise God has chosen you. (pause)
But now let’s come back around full circle…because admittedly I haven’t been talking much about our specific passage today…but there is a connection…a very great one…and we find it within the repetition of the passage. Abiding.
As Jesus prepares to leave these men…he tells them over and over again to abide…Abide in me and I abide in you. You are the branches…abide in the vine…abide and bear much fruit…abide abide abide…and since this isn’t a word that we really use all that much…perhaps you’re wondering just what it means…and it means to remain…or to live with…or to be in relationship with…essentially…just as the branches must remain connected to the grapevine in order to live and bear fruit…we too must remain connected to the source of life…and we hear today that this is Christ himself.
And perhaps this seems a little strange for Jesus to tell them to remain connected to him when he’s about to leave them…and likewise its confusing for us to hear the same thing knowing that Christ has long since returned to heaven. And so we wonder is Jesus making some sort of joke here?
And the answer is no…because through Christ we are given many ways to remain in relationship. He tells us that his word abides in us…and through the scriptures we see this is true…and through Christ we can approach our Father in heaven through prayer…we have direct access to God…and finally through the body of Christ here on earth…through one another, united by the power of the Holy Spirit we remain together…we live together…we abide together…connected to one another…but more importantly connected to Jesus…the one who calls himself I am.
And this connection…this life together…this abiding in one another…its not conditional…we don’t have pass a test…we don’t have to earn it…its offered freely to us…and in the waters of our baptisms we join in this community…we join in this life together…we join in this connection…and we are not alone…for in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we are in relationship.
I want to go back to that story that I started in the beginning…You might recall that I was walking down the hallway of my dorm for the first time…scared out of my mind…but then as I approached my door, even before I stepped through it…I heard two familiar voices…two friends that I already knew…close friends who were now my roommates…and as I heard those voices, and I stepped around the corner and saw their faces I knew I wasn’t in this alone…but that we were in it together…even if we didn’t know what to expect. And at that moment, I knew…in spite of all the questions and fears and doubts…that it was gonna be okay.
As I look out there today, and see the 8 of you sitting there…wondering just what all this faith stuff is all about…and wondering just how it all works…rest easy in knowing that you are a part of something bigger than just you…you are connected to this community…you are connected to the church…the body of Christ on earth…and this is a place where you can live with your questions…where its okay that things don’t always make sense…so live in it…be connected to it…remain in it…Just abide already. Amen.